Stress Reduction using Yoga and Biofeedback

Swami Tapasmurti Saraswati

This report is an analysis of a series of Stress Reduction Courses conducted at Satyananda Ashram, Perth, Australia, during 1980 and 1981, using yogic techniques facilitated by the use of biofeedback. The basis of the courses evolved around training in yoga nidra, although the techniques of asana, pranayama and meditation were included where necessary. Each course was conducted over a 10 week period for 2 hours per week, with groups of 12 to 14 adults, both male and female The aim was to develop the ability to relax deeply, and to stimulate personal growth through the practice of yoga, with emphasis on the importance of sustained practice of these techniques.

The use of biofeedback was an excellent method of indicating individual progress over the 10 week training period, which gave a positive reinforcement to the effectiveness of the yoga practices. This produced a more receptive state, and consequently better results.

The courses revealed that stress problems are not always associated with over arousal and an inability to relax. Hence, yoga nidra alone is not always sufficient. The following analysis shows how other combinations of yoga techniques can be used along with yoga nidra, to create harmony and balance.

Equipment

The main piece of biofeedback equipment used was an electrical skin resistance (ESR) meter which is more accurate than the more commonly used GSR. It measures the value of skin resistance in the palm of the hand, which varies in direct proportion to changes in the autonomic nervous system. The meter shows two scales. One scale indicates the basal skin resistance (BSR), which is the actual value of skin resistance at that time. Generally speaking, a low BSR indicates a relaxed or withdrawn state.

With the other scale, the needle of the meter is set at the centre from which it can swing to the right or left, and measure the percentage change in the response of the autonomic nervous system. Its movement to the right indicates arousal, mainly associated with activation of the sympathetic nervous system in response to some challenge or stress. Movement of the needle to the left indicates the degree of relaxation attained with activation of the parasympathetic nervous system.

Format

At the beginning of each course the participants underwent a number of tests using the ESR meter. While connected to the meter, the group was led through a series of instructions which involved both arousal and relaxation. The ESR readings were noted and recorded throughout the tests. This would indicate each individual's autonomic response, from which a multidimensional profile of their personal psycho-physiological responses to stress could be obtained.

Results

As the programs progressed, it became evident that 1 of 5 general patterns of responses in the autonomic nervous system invariably appeared. Accordingly, a suitable program of yogic practices was made available to balance the specific tendencies reflected in each response pattern. These 5 types and their corresponding practises are listed below:

  1. Overarousal: These subjects would record high levels of arousal, and an inability to relax. Characteristically, this type of person is constantly active, aggressive, competitive and ambitious. High levels of anxiety and worry are characteristic, and they find it very difficult to let go'. Here the autonomic nervous system (pingala nadi) is unbalanced in the direction of sympathetic dominance which is a reflection of a highly eternalised lifestyle. This personality type is especially prone to cardiovascular disease, and practices such as yoga nidra, nadi shodhana, ujjayi and pawanmuktasana were most effective in restoring a degree of nervous balance in such individuals.
  2. Fixed: The fixed type of personality was indicated by little or no response to any of the tests. This type would be unable to respond fully to external situations, nor could they relax and experience any of the inner qualities of the mind. They usually believe that 'I'm OK', whereas their life is actually dull, colourless and uninspired. They have only arranged to avoid living by building an insulating shell around themselves as protection against outside influences, as well as their own thoughts and feelings. As this type responds to neither stimulation nor relaxation, it was necessary to first utilise other yoga practices such as shakti bandhas, trikonasana, surya namaskara, bhastrika, bandhas, Om chanting, kirtan, and in more drastic cases, shankhaprakshalana, which has powerful psychological as well as physiological effects. Once the initial blockages had been overcome, yoga nidra and simple meditation techniques could be successfully introduced. A certain degree of control over the autonomic functions is necessary before deep relaxation can be induced, otherwise there will be no response to the technique.
  3. Fluctuating: This type of person was characterised by erratic movements of the needle of the ESR meter during all tests. These were people who were characteristically temperamental, excitable and moody. For example, such a person might be highly enthusiastic about a project initially, only to become depressed later on when some difficulty is encountered. Having no internal stability, this type is often forced to depend excessively on others. Response to yoga nidra was usually most favourable, and was potentiated by a yoga program of static major asanas, balancing postures, abdominal breathing, nadi shodhana (with emphasis on breathing ratio and kumbhaka).
  4. Under arousal: The under aroused person presents a very high BSR, weak response to challenge, and rapid withdrawal afterwards. This personality is basically introverted and withdrawn. These subjects tend to live within their own thoughts, failing to interact efficiently and meaningfully with the external world. Here the parasympathetic nervous system (ida nadi) is predominant. This group can undoubtedly relax, but they seek an introverted state, failing to respond to life's challenges and opportunities alike. For this type of personality, yoga nidra is not applicable as the practitioner will have great difficulty emerging from the increased state of withdrawal induced by the practice. The aim of yoga is to gain control, which means not only mastery over the capacity to relax, but also the ability to become aroused as well. Yoga nidra practices can only be used by such individuals once they have gained the ability to arouse themselves from their withdrawn state. To facilitate this, their practice program included surya namaskara, dynamic asanas, shakti bandhas, bhastrika pranayama, agnisara kriya and kunjal kriya.
  5. Balanced: The healthy, balanced personality type showed an ability to respond to challenge, but return to the normal state afterwards. They also showed that they could respond to relaxation practices with control. As this group shows an ability to be able to respond to, and control, both relaxation and arousal, the program was orientated towards increasing the range of their responses, i.e. increasing the quality of their experience. Any yoga techniques can be practised by this type with beneficial results. Kriya yoga in particular is suitable, as these people would have sufficient self-control to cope with the dynamic experiences associated with these techniques. However, such practices as kriyas were beyond the scope of these courses.

Discussion

Although 5 distinct types of psycho-physiological behaviours have been described, there is actually no clear cut and distinct demarcation between each one. For example, some people begin to exhibit a normal relaxation response, only to become 'stuck' at a certain point, or sometimes even aroused, once a certain level of relaxation is attained. The first situation suggests that there is a blockage to the relaxation process at a certain subconscious level, while the second situation indicates that this blockage is actually causing fear or distress such as may occur when a repressed traumatic experience, which has not been fully resolved, is confronted. These obstructions often recur for the same person at the same stage of yoga nidra, which helps in assisting the person to recognise and assess the problem, and then 'let it go'.

"Yogaschitta vritti nirodah" (sutra 1), Patanjali's classic response to the question 'What is yoga?' states that yoga is a process of blocking the patterns of consciousness. Blocking does not mean suppression, but an ability to 'let go' and flow with the various patterns of consciousness. This is precisely the capacity acquired through yoga nidra training.

Originally the courses were intended for the typical over aroused type of person (Group 1), but it soon became apparent as the other 4 autonomic behaviour patterns emerged, that people who consider themselves to be living under stress belong not only to this single category. Each of the other types illustrated some form of mental obstruction to this 'letting go' process, preventing a balanced functioning of the autonomic nervous system, and hence an imbalance between ida and pingala, mental energies and vital energies.

Stress problems exist when we do not have the self-control to regulate internal imbalances. The yoga practices were shown to develop this control. In yogic physiology we know that when ida and pingala are balanced, sushumna nadi (spiritual energy) flows and the state of meditation exists, while in yoga therapy this balance is the key to health and the elimination of disease.

As was seen in the previous discussion of the courses, the person who can let go of his normal state in response to stress and then relinquish the aroused state once the stressful situation is over; let go of his normal waking state in order to relax deeply, then again emerge from that relaxed state when the situation demands, is the one who possesses a psycho-physiological maturity. He can truly cope with all life's situations with awareness and control, and live a balanced, happy and fruitful life. This is the aim and experience of yoga.